CX and Gamma – Separated at Birth or Perfect Strangers?
In the third and final part of this series, we examine whether the CX and the Gamma were mechanically and technologically related at any point in their histories, and what – if any – politics, corporate or otherwise, affected their development paths.
Both the CX and the Gamma sported raked, low-profile, two-box, four-door, front-wheel drive fastback sedan designs with a Kamm tail, which, however, is not a hatchback. Someone with only a passing interest in cars could easily think these cars emerged from the same original collaborative project. However, both designs were heavily influenced by the 1967 Pininfarina 1800 Aerodynamica prototype, which was proposed as a putative replacement for British Motor Corporation’s 1800/2200 Landcrabs.
The development timelines of the CX and the Gamma don’t match that well. As Citroënët informs us, Robert Opron’s team started design work on Projet L, the eventual CX, “[at] the end of the sixties, a few months prior to the launch of the SM and GS.” Τhe SM was shown to the public in March 1970, at the Geneva Motor Show, while the GS was launched on 24 August 1970. This means that Citroën started developing the CX, which was to continue the design theme of the GS (itself similar to Pininfarina’s smaller Aerodynamica concept, the 1100), in the last months of 1969.
Unless peculiarities of the project at hand or individual commitments dictate otherwise, it makes sense for two partners who collaborate for the development of an entirely new product to begin work at the same time. This holds true in the automotive industry as well. Even if Lancia was considered as a partner for Citroën, it couldn’t possibly join in at that time. In the beginning of 1970, after Lancia was put under Fiat’s umbrella, Camuffo started developing the Fulvia’s successor, the unfairly maligned Beta. Still in recovery mode after what Car Magazine reviewer and Lancia enthusiast Philippe de Barsy described as a “disastrous Pesenti-Fessia regime,” the Turinese firm was only really capable of running one new car development project at a time.
So, Citroën spent the entire period from late 1969 to 1974 working on the CX, while Lancia developed the Beta (another car following the Pininfarina 1800 Aerodynamica’s template) in what seems like a record time: 1970-1972. The CX and the Beta, though, were not only poles apart in mechanical design, but were also positioned in different market segments, demonstrating that similarities in body style are not evidence of shared underpinnings. After the Beta was launched in 1972, development work on the Gamma (Tipo 830) began, and the car was eventually launched in 1976. That’s a four-year gestation period, which is par for the course.
What killed Lancia’s hydropneumatic experimentation? The unravelling of PARDEVI or de Gaulle’s “non”?
Before we move any further, I’ll quote Robinson’s narration again: “Three prototypes were built, using Citroen suspension adapted to the Lancia floorpan. The irresistible Lancia inclination to be different led to the birth of a new water-cooled flat-four engine of either 2.0 or 2.4-litres. Camuffo still maintained that this engine layout brings a lower centre of gravity and permits a lower bonnet line. Then, when it seemed the Fiat-Citroen deal would come off, the merger was cancelled, some say because French President, Charles De Gaulle, opposed the use of French technology in an Italian car.” The abandonment of these prototypes prompted Camuffo to say “[they] lost a year.”
Honestly, and this is the industrial engineer in me speaking, if I were Camuffo, I’d have vetoed this idea myself, even if I weren’t in a position where I could foresee the end of PARDEVI. It simply wouldn’t make much sense for Lancia to try and adapt another manufacturer’s suspension technology to its own floorpans. After all, they already had the Beta’s acclaimed suspension layout ready to adapt to a new floorpan.
Although some say otherwise, de Gaulle couldn’t possibly have vetoed this Citroën-Lancia collaboration; development work on the Gamma started in 1972, when he was a bit too busy pining for the fjords. Besides, as we already know, his 1968 veto didn’t stop Citroën’s acquisition by Fiat from happening. So, who could have axed those three hydropneumatically-sprung prototypes, a mere year after R&D work had started on them? Only Fiat’s management could, and the most obvious reason for such a decision would be the fallout from the unravelling of the PARDEVI accord in 1973.
Indeed, as Fiat sold its share back to Michelin, it most likely found it unwise to continue work on any new car project that would be tied to Citroën and its intellectual property: Fiat would have to start paying licensing fees to Citroën. So, the most plausible explanation is that these prototypes were built in 1972 and scrapped in 1973, when the PARDEVI accord finally fell through. I can very easily imagine Agnelli phoning Camuffo and telling him ‘our deal with Citroën’s off, so stop any work that’s based on their stuff, and start over.’ I wouldn’t be surprised if Fiat’s top brass felt some animosity towards their colleagues at Citroën for shelving the Fiat 127-based Projet Y.
Honestly though, from the viewpoint of an industrial engineer, it makes sense for Beta and Gamma to share the same successful suspension layout – much more than it’d make for the Gamma to be built on somebody else’s platform, especially one whose use would now require licensing fees. The same, naturally, applies to Citroën.
So close, yet so far away
Now, let’s get to the cars in their final forms. Stylistically, they have a common ancestor, as an evolutionary biologist would say. Mechanically, they’re entirely different. First of all, the design brief for Projet L (the CX) called for “the ability to fit the Maserati V6 from the SM and a Wankel trirotor;” these engines were to be longitudinally mounted, behind the front axle in a MF (front-mid-engine, front-wheel-drive) layout – as was the case with the SM and the DS. Unfortunately, the 1973 Oil Crisis killed the Citroën-NSU Comotor JV, so the CX wouldn’t get a Wankel engine.
A fascinating and intriguing twist in the story of the CX’s development and Citroën’s and Fiat’s relationship was brought by our keen-eyed commenter Bob, who mentioned (citing Michael Buurma’s book on the CX, which I plan to order very soon) a 1971 Projet L prototype that was powered by a water-cooled flat-four developed from the Lancia Flavia’s engine. This engine, which was ultimately rejected, had a capacity of 1,654 cc and a power output of 95 HP. Being mounted ahead of the front wheels, it pushed the car’s centre of gravity too far forward, adversely affecting its handling.
One could also say that, in light of the dissolution of the PARDEVI accord, its rejection was prudent; post-PARDEVI, Citroën would have to pay licensing fees to Fiat if they were to use any engine from the Fiat-Lancia stable. Still, this was a rather early prototype, so I wonder if this factor crossed anyone’s mind. At any rate, the existence of this prototype raises a few questions. Citroën wanted to equip what would become the CX with Wankel engines and the Maserati-designed V6. Before this ambition came to nought, why would they bother to build a prototype that was powered by a Lancia flat-four? Were they actually considering this engine? Or were they merely testing it for evaluation purposes?
On the other hand, the Gamma, which was always meant to be the Flavia’s successor rather than the Flaminia’s, had a flat-four (developed from that of the Flavia) driving the front wheels. Following the Flavia’s example, it was mounted longitudinally in front of the front axle.
No V6 For You!
So, due to the Oil Crisis, one of the originally intended engine options (the Comotor Wankel) was ruled out. The Maserati V6 was to follow suit in 1975. Surprisingly, this engine option was ruled out by Peugeot, although Maserati’s engineers demonstrated in the spring of 1975 that the CX could be easily fitted with this engine. Clearly, the suits in Sochaux wanted to get rid of Maserati and everything that came with it. To be honest, and putting financial considerations aside, I can’t blame Peugeot for having misgivings about Maserati’s V6. In its earlier forms, it was known for being unreliable and costly to maintain. Later on, it was merely costly to maintain. I can also understand them for not wanting to pay licensing fees to Maserati; after all, they had the PRV (Peugeot-Renault-Volvo) unit.
But the CX was never given even that. One can only wonder if this was an attempt by Peugeot to prevent the CX from upstaging their own flagship, the 604. Whatever the case, this meant that the CX’s original design brief was thrown in the dustbin and the CX never became what its designers had envisioned. As a result, the CX would have to make do with the engine it started its career with, which was the only option that remained available: the somewhat updated DS engine, mounted transversely rather than longitudinally.
A look at the two cars’ dimensions, especially the internal ones, reveals much about the lack of any meaningful connection between the two projects. The Gamma was dimensionally pegged (more or less) to the Flavia/2000, which it replaced. The Gamma Berlina’s dimensions were as follows, with the 2000 Berlina’s in parentheses:
- Length: 4.580 m (4.620 m)
- Width: 1.730 m (1.610 m)
- Height: 1.410 m (1.460 m)
- Wheelbase: 2.670 m (2.650 m)
- Track (Front/Rear): 1.450/1.440 m (1.330/1.290 m)
On the other hand, the CX’s dimensions were as follows:
- Length: 4.657 m (4,907 m for the Prestige version)
- Width: 1.770 m
- Height: 1.360 m
- Wheelbase: 2.845 m (3.095 m for the Prestige version)
- Track (Front/Rear): 1.471/1.359 m
Besides the obvious differences in their dimensions, they also differed in their suspension layouts, and this provides further evidence that these cars were entirely unrelated projects. Had they been the result of a collaborative project, at least their suspension layouts would have been the same, perhaps with different methods of absorbing road bumps and ruts (coil springs in one car, hydropneumatic spheres in the other). Two obvious examples of this are the Rover 200 and the Honda Concerto, and the Peugeot 406 and the Citroën Xantia. So, the CX’s front suspension uses transverse arms (upper and lower) and an anti-roll bar, while at the rear it has trailing arms and an anti-roll bar.
On the other hand, the Gamma carries over the Beta’s successful suspension architecture, with struts and an anti-roll bar at the front, mounted on a subframe for refinement, and Camuffo’s much-copied “Bracci Longitudinali Guidati” (essentially transverse arms at the bottom, located via trailing arms and an anti-roll bar) at the rear; its rear suspension layout is not a million miles away from that of the Fiat 130. Of course, conventional telescopic dampers with coil springs were used all around.
The two cars were also markedly different in their body structures: whereas the Gamma had a typical modern unibody design, the CX added a separate chassis-like subframe beneath the main body, onto which the front and rear subframes were mounted.
After all this, we can easily and safely reach several conclusions regarding the development sagas of the CX and the Gamma. Let’s start with the mechanical aspect: there is evidence that Lancia explored the possibility of using Citroën’s hydropneumatic suspensions on the Flavia’s successor, but this effort was abandoned quickly; most likely in 1973, in the wake of the PARDEVI accord’s dissolution.
The most plausible explanations for this are Fiat’s desire to avoid paying licensing fees to Citroën and an effort to achieve some sort of economies of scale by sharing a common suspension layout with the Beta. Also, even when Lancia’s engineers were working on a hydropneumatically-sprung prototype, they used a modified Lancia floorpan as a starting point, which was not shared with Citroën.
It’s also been established that, around 1971, Citroën experimented with what seems to be a downsized water-cooled flat-four engine derived from the Flavia’s, but this came to nought. With the Oil Crisis killing their ambition to equip the CX with a Wankel engine, and with the PARDEVI accord failing, the use of Fiat-Lancia engines would require licensing fees, which rendered them less attractive. As things turned out, the Gamma and the CX, two cars that were already developed separately and independently of each other, ended up – quite unsurprisingly – being entirely different in just about everything: drivetrain layout and type, in body structure, and in suspension architecture.
Were politics involved in the two cars’ development? Corporate politics, yes; as the PARDEVI deal came close to its dissolution, so did the collaboration between Citroën and Fiat. It also seems the corporate cultures and technological differences of the two firms played a major part. Additionally, Citroën’s new owners, Peugeot, stepped in to put the kibosh on the original plan for the CX to be equipped with a V6 engine (Maserati or PRV), completing its derailment from what was envisioned under Bercot. As anyone can understand, the decisions that affected these two projects were not dictated by either the Italian or the French government, but by the apex predators of the two brands’ respective corporate food chains.
And now, to get back to de Gaulle’s fabled ‘non’. The time has come to put it in its correct historical context once and for all. He objected to Fiat’s initial bid to acquire Citroën in 1968. His objection, however, didn’t prevent the deal from going forward when Pompidou succeeded him. Furthermore, his reasoning, which reflected his concern for France’s independent presence in the car manufacturing sector, and for the protection of French car manufacturing jobs, was far more nuanced than the majority of car publications would have you believe. That said, I must admit that, despite its lack of veracity, the Gaullic ‘non’ makes an exciting story – so, it’s unlikely it’ll ever go away.
Sources, quotations, and acknowledgements: See Part One.